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Guarding the legacy of a crook

Times Staff Writer

When it comes to protecting the memory of his great-uncle, Jeffrey Scalf sees himself as a lone sentinel.

Admittedly, it’s not easy to defend the name of John H. Dillinger, a man once referred to as Public Enemy No. 1.

“For good or ill, this is my family’s legacy and no one is going to take that away from me,” says Scalf, 50, who readily admits his childhood fascination with the infamous outlaw has become a crusade.

He says he has been ripped off by the author and publisher of a Dillinger biography, who refused to pay him licensing fees. He feels burned by restaurateurs who use the 1930s bank robber’s name to hawk burgers and beer, and cheated by a California video-game company that used Dillinger’s digital likeness in a game about gangsters.

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And don’t even get Scalf started on civic leaders and festival organizers who stage public events using the notorious thief’s name and exploits -- but won’t pay him to use the name. It’s highway robbery, he says.

By day, Scalf is a marketing executive for the Indiana Pacers basketball team. At night, he is at his computer, searching the Internet for information about Dillinger -- and hunting down those who would either profit from or smear his memory.

There’s no disputing that his great-uncle was a mesmerizing figure. Between May 1933 and July 1934, when federal officials shot him outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago, Dillinger cleaned out more than a dozen banks and destroyed thousands of mortgage records held in their vaults. Dillinger stole more than $300,000 during that 14-month period at the height of the Great Depression -- the equivalent of nearly $4.8 million in today’s economy. The crime wave riveted the nation.

It was a legendary record of robbery, one that Scalf speaks of proudly. He also brags about the three daring jailbreaks, the fact that Dillinger flirted with his female hostages during bank heists and how Humphrey Bogart’s big break in Hollywood came from playing a character modeled after the bandit.

When Scalf was a young farm boy growing up poor, it was this glamorized image of his great-uncle that he dreamed about: Dillinger as a man’s man, a quick-witted charmer who was part playboy, part rebel.

Today, Scalf is quick to point out physical similarities between himself and Dillinger: At 5-foot-7 Scalf is about Dillinger’s height, and photographs of Dillinger show the same dimpled chin, high forehead and receding hairline as Scalf. However, Scalf’s cropped hair is more gray now than Dillinger’s chestnut brown; Dillinger died at age 31. Also, Scalf is “quite a bit” heavier than his relative was.

Given such pride in their similarities, and a dogged sense of familial loyalty, Scalf can’t understand and won’t forgive those who call Dillinger a murderer.

He was charged with gunning down Police Officer William Patrick O’Malley during the January 1934 robbery of the First National Bank of East Chicago, Ind. But the case never went to trial. Dillinger was killed before the jury was selected.

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Scalf insists the family has proof of his innocence, which he plans to reveal in a biography he’s writing. The FBI’s own website describes Dillinger as one of the era’s pivotal “lurid desperadoes,” but doesn’t specifically state that Dillinger committed the murder, only that his gang was responsible.

Scalf does acknowledge that his hero had flaws. Dillinger went AWOL from the Navy. Ten men were killed during the robberies -- some accidentally by law enforcement -- and there were those jailhouse escapes. But such darker realities are often overshadowed in Scalf’s recollections by Dillinger’s more romantic exploits.

Since 2001, Scalf has filed lawsuits or threatened legal action against those who blame his great-uncle for the police officer’s killing, including cafe owners, museum organizers, historical societies and rural township officials. He has demanded that anyone using the name sign a waiver promising not to portray the bandit as vicious or mean-spirited.

“John did some bad things. He lived a tragic life,” says Scalf. “But he was no killer.”

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That claim has drawn ridicule from most historians, and those targeted by Scalf say he is the one exploiting Dillinger -- for his own profit and personal glory.

“This isn’t about preserving history,” says author Dary Matera, whose publisher tangled with Scalf over “John Dillinger: The Life and Death of America’s First Celebrity Criminal.” “It’s about control and money.”

Scalf admits that some of his own relatives -- who either declined to be interviewed or could not be reached for comment -- are baffled by his attempts to polish the legacy of the family’s black sheep. And some people in Dillinger’s adopted hometown of Mooresville, a bedroom community of nearly 9,300, are simply embarrassed by it all.

Scalf, who says he has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, claims he has yet to profit from his legal fights. He says he dreams of using licensing fees to start a foundation for troubled youth and to build a museum in Mooresville.

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After, of course, his legal bills are paid.

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John Herbert Dillinger was born in 1903 in Indianapolis, the youngest son of a local grocer and his wife. His mother, Mollie, died soon after he learned to walk.

His father, John Sr., later remarried and moved his second wife, Elizabeth, and their children to a small, struggling dairy farm on the outskirts of Mooresville, about 19 miles southwest of Indianapolis.

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Scalf’s grandmother, Doris Dillinger Hockman, was the bandit’s younger half-sister. It was Doris and her husband, Harlon, who fed Scalf stories about the past.

Pulling out photo albums cracking with age, the couple would show their grandson snapshots of a smirking Dillinger, clad in a crisp dark suit and toting a machine gun. The photographs were taken at a time when many Americans had more regard for bank robbers than bankers.

Doris recalled how, as a teenager, she would watch state police fly planes low over the town fields, and how local boys would tease investigators by pulling hats over their faces and ducking for cover amid the corn stalks. Harlon remembered watching newsreels of Dillinger’s exploits, and how each heist was followed as closely by newspaper photographers back then as the paparazzi now hound celebrities.

Scalf peppered his grandparents with questions: How big was the wooden gun Dillinger carved to escape jail? Where did he hide his money? Did he really slip hostages $100 after he let them go?

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Few other relatives wanted any part of that past, or seemed interested in the potential financial benefits that might be connected to it.

An Indiana law, known as a postmortem right of publicity, allows Scalf and other descendants the right to charge for, or prevent the use of, Dillinger’s name, likeness, voice or personality, says Amy Wright, Scalf’s attorney. In Indiana, such rights last 100 years after a person’s death and cover, among other things, the deceased’s signature, photograph, distinctive appearance and mannerisms.

After Dillinger’s death, Scalf’s grandmother held a majority portion of the rights, according to Wright, until she handed them over to her grandson in 1997. (She died in 2001.) She had only one request of Scalf: Stop the public from calling her half-brother a murderer. Scalf says he soon realized that -- as with other historical figures -- strangers were trying to profit from his great-uncle.

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Bands named after the bank robber hawked punk CDs. Collectors auctioned off original 1930s Chicago newspapers with screaming headlines about Dillinger’s robberies. T-shirts, boxer shorts and mouse pads sporting Dillinger’s face were sold on the Internet.

But it was what happened in Hammond, Ind., that prompted Scalf to call attorneys.

In 1999, the Lake County Convention and Visitors Bureau opened a Dillinger museum, a $1.4-million attempt to encourage tourism in the far northwest corner of Indiana.

The exhibits included a picture from the Chicago Tribune that showed people gathered behind the Biograph Theater after Dillinger was shot, dipping their handkerchiefs in the blood still on the ground. Nearby, a model of the alley displayed federal agent figurines leaning over a dead body. A mock city morgue included a replica of Dillinger’s corpse lying on a slab.

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Even worse, there were displays that detailed how Dillinger killed O’Malley.

This infuriated Scalf, and he demanded that the material be pulled. Convention bureau officials refused. So in 2001, Scalf sued the organization, accusing it of illegally profiting from Dillinger’s persona.

A state court sided with him but didn’t resolve the issue of damages. To avoid a jury trial, both sides agreed to mediation. The bureau offered to pay $375,000; other details -- such as what to do with the original carved wooden “gun” Dillinger used to break out of an Indiana jail -- are unresolved. But a bargaining impasse recently sent both sides back to court, and the case is now tentatively scheduled to go to trial next summer.

The museum has closed.

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Scalf had just begun.

He sued a computer game company in San Francisco. (They settled.) He fought with a Dillinger-themed restaurant in Hudson, Ind. (Its owner also settled.) He challenged a group of community boosters hosting a Dillinger Days festival in downtown Mason City, Iowa. (The town renamed the festival.)

Somehow, word of Scalf’s litigiousness never reached the organizers of Dillinger Days in Tucson. Since 1992, the annual event has drawn crowds to its history lectures, classic car cruise-ins and re-enactments of how local police once captured Dillinger.

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Thinking it might be fun to have a family member at the festivities, event organizer Richard Oseran invited Scalf to be a keynote speaker in 2003.

The crowd listened avidly to his stories about his great-uncle’s life in the Midwest and the bandit’s plans to flee to Mexico. Afterward, Scalf mingled with the crowd. He told people how he had bought Dillinger’s family homestead and now calls it his own; how he owns the gray felt fedora that, he claims, Dillinger wore on the last family visit. And he repeatedly adopted the same smirk and head-cocked pose seen in Dillinger’s “wanted” posters.

Scalf fondly remembers the trip even now. But that didn’t stop him last year from suing Oseran to block the event and have him hand over all unsold Dillinger merchandise. Oseran, who says he no longer runs Dillinger Days, declined to discuss the case.

That Scalf has turned to the law as a weapon to defend the legacy of a notorious criminal doesn’t seem strange to him.

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“John would have appreciated the irony,” Scalf says. “Just because he broke the law doesn’t mean other people can.”

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Amid the legal tussles, Scalf still hopes to convince his neighbors in Mooresville to embrace Indiana’s infamous native son. But the idea hasn’t gained much traction.

“We make far more of a deal that Mooresville is the hometown of Paul Hadley, who designed the state flag,” says librarian Bill Buckley.

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For now, there’s no statue or plaque in Dillinger’s honor. No streets are named after him or mark his escapades. At one point, city leaders even told a local McDonald’s to take down posters and other artifacts honoring Dillinger, or hawk its burgers and fries elsewhere.

That attitude still exists today, to Scalf’s amazement. “There’s a market in this,” he says.

Indeed, so many souvenir hunters have chipped pieces from Dillinger’s headstone at the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis that the family has replaced it five times. People have showed up uninvited at the Dillinger farm house just outside Mooresville and dug up the lawn, searching for loot stolen more than seven decades ago.

It has made Scalf so nervous that he has hidden all of his Dillinger memorabilia -- a handwritten jailhouse letter, a favorite straw boater hat, the fragile black leather belt the bandit wore the night he died.

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He’s storing it in the one place that would make Dillinger howl.

Inside a bank vault.

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p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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